• Published 3rd Nov 2012
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In Their Highnesses' Clandestine Corps - AugieDog



The name's Blueblood. Prince Blueblood.

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Act II - Octopony

When off on one of these little jaunts, Blueblood had found that he could determine his distance from Canterlot by the time of day the locals began going about their business. The earlier ponies started work, the further from civilization he deemed it.

So he wasn't at all surprised to see that, mere moments after Aunt Celestia had given the sun its daily heave-ho, Ponyville already swarmed with activity. The hats, yokes, and carts led him to guess the traffic was mostly farm workers meandering along toward whatever cargo awaited them at their charmless little train station.

Well, all right, it hadn't been completely charmless. Until she'd started speaking, that pegasus had presented quite the fetching picture, all sky blues and rainbows reclining atop the plain dun background of those sacks. Her toned and compact elegance made for yet another contrast—albeit a much more pleasant one—between Ponyville and Canterlot, and Blueblood found his mouth going sideways at the thought of the spindle-legged females back home whose spidery embraces he constantly found himself trying to dodge.

A pity he was here on assignment. And even more of a pity that, by choosing not to give him the information she so clearly possessed concerning Green Briar's whereabouts, this Rainbow Dash had made herself a part of that assignment.

Leaving Chives to see to the luggage, he squared his withers in the plain black suit coat he wore beneath his traveling cloak and set off for the center of town, his eyes still tracing the trajectory of Rainbow Dash's flight from the train station.

***

"Nothing?!" Dash waved a hoof. "Zecora said mid-morning, and it's already—" She glanced at the clock ticking happily away beside Sugar Cube Corner's coat racks. "OK. So it's hardly even seven yet. But she could still be in trouble!"

Smearing glaze over a freshly-fried batch of donuts, Pinkie shrugged. "No twitches here," she said around the brush in her mouth.

"And that means what?" Dash had a healthy respect for Pinkie's twitches, sure, but they just weren't reliable. It wasn't like with weather, after all, where certain moves would always help a pony chase down lightning or pile up cumulonimbus clouds and certain other moves would just get her singed or frozen.

Pinkie shrugged again and dropped her brush into the bowl of glaze. "Silly Dashie. It's twitches that mean stuff, not not twitches!"

Dash folded her front legs, flopped backwards against the wall and slouched to the floor, her real feelings too turbulent for words. "It's just so unfair! This weird guy with the bandages is the only excitement we've had all week, and I'm missing it! If I'd've stuck with him, I'll bet I could totally be fighting monsters right now!"

With a flick of her hoofs, Pinkie slid the donuts off her big metal tray into the display case, empty after the morning rush. "Most monsters turn out to be really nice guys once you get to know 'em." Her face brightened. "Remember that manticore? Or the Ursa Minor? Ooo! Or when Cerberus came to town?" She started bouncing in place. "They were great!"

"Yeah, yeah." Dash blew air through her lips and hoped Pinkie was right. "Wimpy little monsters we get around here..."

"Indeed?" asked a deep voice, its snooty accent one she'd already heard enough of today. "You prefer your monsters more robust, Ms. Dash?"

"Ooooo," Pinkie said again, but this time she put so much movement into the sound, it made Dash think of a leaf wafting around on the breeze. "I know you! You're that guy! With the hat! No, wait: I was the one with the hat! You were Captain Snooty Pants! Or Prince Porpoise Head! Or something!"

It took a little effort, but Dash didn't so much as glance over. Had he followed her? How long had he been standing there? Had he heard her mention the bandaged pony?

His shadow moved across the floor, polished hoofs and the edge of that fine gray cloak gliding casually into her field of vision. "I've met a few monsters in my time," he said, his words all zephyr-smooth and velvet. "They and I didn't get along."

And, well, there was no way Dash could let that go. "Really?" She snapped a big grin up at the prince, his deep blue eyes half closed like the sky glimpsed through a layer of clouds. "Somepony you don't get along with? Imagine that!"

Those eyes hardened into something pretty close to a glare, and Pinkie gave another drawn out squeak. "Hey! If you want monsters, you and Dashie should go into the forest looking for that guy she—"

It took Dash less than a twentieth of a second to leap across the room and jam a front hoof into Pinkie's mouth, but the way Blueblood's whole face tightened up, she knew she'd been too slow—he was a jerk, sure, but he wasn't an idiot. He took one step forward, and she suddenly realized just how big he was: maybe even Big Macintosh big. "Where is he, Ms. Dash?" he asked, his tone a couple degrees colder than before.

She fixed her gaze on his. "What do you want with him?"

He didn't so much as blink. "Why do you care?"

A wet little wiggle against her hoof made her remember she still had it stuffed into Pinkie's mouth; she wrenched it out with a pop, Pinkie smacking her lips and exclaiming, "Mmmm! Rainbowy!" She waggled her eyebrows. "You wanna try some, Cap'n Prince?"

Not even bothering to groan, Dash turned back to Blueblood. "I don't care. Except he was hurt pretty bad, and then a scumball like you comes skating into town looking like you want to hurt him even worse!" Shaking her hoof to dry it, she tapped her own chest. "Because I've met some monsters, too, buddy, or maybe you've never heard of Nightmare Moon? Discord? The Queen of the Changelings? And I don't like it when big guys like that start ganging up on us little guys!"

"Yay!" Pinkie dove behind the counter and came up with pom-poms on her front hoofs. "Go, Dashie, go! Go, Dashie, go!"

Dash gave Pinkie a grin, but she kept her attention focused on the prince. And for all the disdain she saw in the curl of his lips, she could almost smell him thinking, a sharp and fiery scent like lightning flashing so deep in the clouds, most ponies wouldn't even know that it was there. "Very well, Ms. Dash," he said after a moment. His gaze flickered over to Pinkie. "Is there somewhere quieter we can talk?"

***

Blueblood believed quite strongly in the snap judgments and intuitions that his compass rose cutie mark symbolized, especially since trusting them had saved his life on these missions more times than he could count. So when that feeling of crystal-clear certainty came over him while looking down at this tough pegasus, he quickly shifted his approach. As she'd pointed out, after all, she was practically a colleague, nor was she entirely unused to being a pawn in his Aunties' various machinations. "Is there somewhere quieter we can talk?"

She blinked as if it was the last thing she'd expected him to offer. "Yeah, sure, I guess." She gave a quick nod to the odd baker, the earth pony tucking her pom-poms away under the counter. "See you later, Pinkie."

"You better believe you will!" she said, her cotton-candy mane seeming even larger than when Blueblood had come in.

Rolling her eyes, Rainbow Dash sprang over the counter with a fluid grace that made Blueblood recall her title as the current Best Young Flier in Equestria. She settled to her hoofs and started for the door. "C'mon."

A part of him wanted to slip into his accustomed haughtiness and demand that she refer to him as 'your Highness,' but it didn't seem the sort of thing that would serve the mission, either, not with somepony this prickly. So instead, keeping his voice down as they stepped outside, he asked, "How much do you know about Green Briar?"

"Nothing." Stretching in the morning sunlight, she answered so easily, he thought she must be lying again, but those big, violet eyes didn't hold the slightest trace of guile. "His cart was giving him trouble, so I flew down to see if he needed a hoof with it."

He waited for her to go on, but she didn't. "That's all?"

"Yep." More than a little of that earlier belligerence seeped back into her gaze. "So how 'bout you tell me what you know?"

A few of the ponies setting up their booths in the market square, he noticed, were giving them wide-eyed looks, but Blueblood ignored them and shrugged. "Simply put, Green Briar's mad. He's become convinced that Princess Celestia has usurped some ancient power we unicorns once wielded, and he's spent his life seeking a way to wrest this power back from my darling aunt. Or rather, the princesses and my darling aunts, I should say, now that they're back to their full complement and all. Still, I've been asked to use any and all means to stop him."

It gave him a warm shiver, discussing a subject he'd spent most of his adult life doing his best never to mention, and it inspired in him a feeling he wasn't sure he had a name for. Pride, perhaps? Not his usual sort, of course, the sort that put a strut in his step and a sneer on his lips for all those unfortunate enough not to be him, but a pride in...in...

In what?

He couldn't say.

"Huh." Rainbow Dash's scratchy voice pulled him from his thoughts. "So Princess Celestia would've heard of this Green Briar guy?"

A breath got him centered again. "It was Auntie who first set me on his trail some years ago, in fact."

"OK." She cocked her head and gave that big grin again, the one that he was starting to find both aggravating and endearing. "Hope you don't mind if we stop off and check your story before we do anything else."

"I beg your pardon?" But she was already trotting away through the market square, an annoying little perk to her ears and an even more annoying little bounce in her walk. Was she truly impugning his character? Tightening his lips, he hurried after her. "Now see here, Ms. Dash! I am not in the habit of lying!" Which wasn't entirely true, of course, but—

"Trouble, sugar cube?" The interruption came in a voice so twangy, Blueblood couldn't keep from wincing, and the speaker's hat, hair style, and entire demeanor shrieked 'farm pony' even more loudly than her accent.

"It's OK, Applejack," Rainbow Dash called with a flick of her tail, her pace not slackening. "You remember Prince Blueblood from the Gala, right?"

The suspicion on the farm pony's face deepened into something even less pleasant. "Reckon I do," she more grumbled than said, and Blueblood hurried past lest her actions take a similar ugly turn.

Catching up with the smugly smiling little pegasus, he made his words both quiet and clipped. "Drawing attention to myself, Ms. Dash, is very much the last thing I need to do here!"

"Good luck with that." She flashed her grin again. "Maybe you didn't notice, Princey, but you kind of stand out in a crowd. Especially when we don't have a crowd around anywhere."

Which was more than enough of that, he decided, intuitions or no. "You may address me as 'Your Highness,'" he told her, drawing himself up to his full height.

"Yeah?" Her ears flicked just enough to tell him he'd made a mistake, and for perhaps the first time in his life, a little twinge of remorse tugged at him. "Well, you can call me 'Dash,' your Whoness. And you can do some other things, too, though I don't think you'd enjoy most of them."

The part of him that wanted to bluster swelled up, but she had flitted ahead to a large tree planted at the far end of the town square, windows and awnings sprouting from it as much as branches and leaves. The candle painted on the door told him it was the town library, and quite the impressive feat of biomancy it was, too, he had to admit.

Rainbow Dash—or Dash, he supposed, especially if she'd only told him to call her that to annoy him—Dash started pounding on the front door, and Blueblood pursed his lips. "Surely the Ponyville library doesn't keep such early hours."

"Nope." She pounded some more. "That's why we need to knock so loud."

The reasoning for this continued to elude him until he heard a mumble from within: "Yeah, yeah, yeah." The lock clicked, and the door swung open to reveal a juvenile dragon, purple and green and somehow familiar. "Rainbow? Can't you just crash through a window like usual? I'm trying to—" The dragon's gaze met Blueblood's, and his squinting eyes burst open like oversized popcorn kernels. "Prince Blueblood?! How—? What—? Why—?"

"Spike, isn't it?" he asked, memories coming back to him of the little creature waddling about the castle; Blueblood had always been so jealous that Auntie's special ed. student got a dragon and he didn't. "It had slipped my mind entirely that you and—"

"We're closed!" came a young mare's voice, sleepy and slurred, and a tousled purple head peered around the corner of what Blueblood supposed was a stairway. "Spike, if you and your friends want to—" She stopped, her eyes doing much the same thing as Spike's had. "Your Highness?!"

Trying his best to keep the irritation from his face and voice, he nodded to her. "Ms. Sparkle. I had no intention of rousing you from your bed, but—"

"Yeah, that was me." Dash pushed through the doorway past the little dragon and into the foyer. "Spike, we need to get a letter to the princess."

Ms. Sparkle did some more blinking. "Rainbow? What's going on?"

Dash was rooting through a writing desk along one wall. "Just something I've gotta check on."

"O...K..." A little rustle of magic partially smoothed Ms. Sparkle's mane, and she gave what Blueblood thought to be a very gracious smile under the circumstances. "Please, your Highness, won't you come in? I can have Spike whip up some tea and—"

"Hello?" Dash had a quill clenched in her teeth, and even though she wasn't nearly as accomplished at speaking that way as Chives was, Blueblood could still understand her clearly enough. "Spike needs to write a letter to the princess! This jerk can get his own whatever."

***

Twilight's gaping face would've made Dash laugh if she hadn't had a mouth full of pen. "Rainbow Dash! When a prince of the royal household comes all the way from Canterlot, you don't—!"

"Yeah, yeah." Good thing Twilight was so organized; the paper was right on top of the desk. Dash spat the pen into the waiting inkwell and turned back to regard Blueblood's scowl. It didn't look real, though, not like the guy she'd glimpsed for maybe half a minute in the middle of their walk here, the maybe kind of interesting guy who'd peeked out at her from behind the prince mask before snapping it back into place again. "But he's not here being a prince. He's here on a mission, he says, and I want to have you check with Princess Celestia and see if he really is or not."

"A mission?" Twilight shifted her head back and forth between Dash and Blueblood. "I...I don't understand."

Blueblood sighed and dropped some of the overblown arrogance again, Dash was glad to see. "I assume, Ms. Sparkle, that you acquired a security clearance during your years as Auntie's student?"

Dash hadn't thought they could've, but Twilight's eyes got even wider. "Of course!" she whispered. "You're in the Clandestine Corps, aren't you?

Clandestine Corps?! Dash tried not to, but she knew she was staring at him, too. Daring Do had worked with CC agents in a couple of the books, and everypony knew they were the best! But how could this jerk really be—?

"Your clearance, Ms. Sparkle?" he asked, but his blank expression struck Dash as another mask, like a morning mist burning away only to reveal more clouds beyond.

"I—" Twilight swallowed. "For some of my research, Princess Celestia gave Spike and me Delta Four status."

He nodded. "That should be sufficient." He waved a hoof at Dash more like he was brushing away a fly. "Perhaps you know enough to reassure Ms. Dash about the legitimate threat Green Briar poses to the crown?"

"Green Briar?!" Twilight's mane ruffled up, and Dash could see the goosebumps rising along her neck. "That crazy pony who tried to kill Princess Celestia?! You're saying he's come to Ponyville?!"

Blueblood's face didn't change at all, but that didn't stop Dash from wanting to smack him. Still, Twilight's folded ears and Spike's quivering spines told her all she needed to know. "All right, fine. Let's go get him."

"Wait!" Twilight had gotten all jittery like she did sometimes. "We've got to—I don't know! Do something! Green Briar's dangerous!"

Dash opened her mouth to tell Twilight to chill, but the quiet steel of Blueblood's voice cut the words off before she could even get them out: "Ms. Sparkle, every scheme Green Briar has ever thought up, I have stopped, and I shall stop this one as well." He turned for the door, Spike frozen and staring like some weird statue on somepony's lawn. "I'll ask you to treat this as a matter of utmost secrecy and will bid you a good morning." He looked back, that weird blank expression still on his face. "Ms. Dash?" And he stepped outside.

"Yeah, OK." She gave Twilight a shrug, her friend's gaping mouth not quite so funny all of a sudden. "See you, Twilight." A couple wingstrokes took her through the doorway and settled her beside the prince, his steady steps continuing west along the road toward the edge of town. "You could've told me you were Clandestine Corps," she said, not trying to keep the edge out of her voice.

He glanced sideways, a tiny smile cracking the edges of his big-time serious spy face. "Would you have believed me?"

She laughed. "Not even a little."

"Well, then." He looked forward once more. "Now, where was it you saw Green Briar?"

A thought struck Dash, and she couldn't keep from leaping into a hover. "Can you run?"

"Run?"

Dash swallowed. "I sent a friend of mine into the forest last night looking for that guy. And I'm getting real worried now that she maybe found him."

All he did was nod, and Dash took off—not at top speed, of course, but fast enough to satisfy the tightening dread in her stomach. Past the little houses to the meadows that surrounded Ponyville, she flew over the dry grass toward the dark jagged line of the Everfree Forest, then headed north along the trees to where she'd seen the bandaged unicorn and his cart. The couple times she looked back in that ten or fifteen minutes, Blueblood was galloping along right behind her, and when she finally landed at the spot, she gave him another point for pulling up maybe half a second later, his breath not coming all that much faster than hers.

She gestured toward the woods. "He smelled like he was burned pretty bad, and when he said he was taking potions for the pain, I gave him directions to Zecora's place: she's a zebra who lives out here and does that sort of thing."

"A zebra?" His eyebrows arched. "Ponyville's apparently more cosmopolitan than I thought."

"Yeah, well..." She didn't want to go into all that, so she just shrugged and started up the slope.

***

Blinking at Rainbow Dash heading for the tree line, Blueblood called, "Excuse me, but might I ask where you're going?"

She gave a wrinkle-browed look over her shoulder. "After Green Briar. Isn't that what we've been talking about this whole time?"

He tapped his chest. "I am going after Green Briar. You are going back to Ponyville with my thanks."

"I'm what now?" She turned completely, and Blueblood prepared himself for what was doubtless going to be a temperamental diatribe of historic proportions. But instead, she began flapping her wings just enough to hold her up while she folded her front legs against her chest. "Or are you saying you don't need a guide through the Everfree?"

"Why would I need a—?"

"Monsters." She jerked her head toward the silent forest behind her, not a single breath of wind stirring the leaves anywhere. "You said you didn't get along with them. Well, this is where they come from, and the friends I've had go in there by themselves usually end up having a real bad day."

A snarky comment rose in his throat about how odd it was for her to consider him a friend after such a short acquaintance, but he couldn't quite make himself say it. So he switched tacks entirely: "You let Green Briar go in alone."

Her gaze shifted away, a dry and guilty sort of scent drifting up from her. "Yeah, well, I've been kicking myself about that all night. And now that I find out he's a nutjob and that I sent a friend to deal with him instead of going myself..." Her jaw tightened, and she turned that determined face of hers back to him. "You can try and stop me, your Whoness, but I don't see that leading anywhere but to bigger problems than we've already got."

The blustering part of him tried to bristle up immediately at both her tone and her implication that Prince Blueblood might need the help of some common bumpkin. But when his intuitions kicked in again—she did know the terrain, after all, and he certainly couldn't dismiss her simply as a well-meaning local, not with the experience she'd had confronting peril—he swallowed his outrage for the third time in as many hours. "Very well." He padded through the grass to join her at the forest's edge. "How adept are you at tracking?"

With a little laugh, she tapped the muddy ground: two parallel ruts, he saw then, carved into the dirt and disappearing into the shadows between two trees. "How's that?" she asked.

He gestured with a hoof. "After you, then, my trusty native guide."

Flicking her tail, she turned. He followed, and after fewer than a dozen paces, the eerie silence and half-light of the place had settled around him like a second coat and cloak, no sign at all that open daylight lay not far behind them.

He activated his horn, its pale glow better than nothing, and nodded to the cart tracks. "Did he follow the directions you gave him to your zebra friend's house?"

Her mouth went sideways; she looked back, looked at the tracks, looked up, and then said, "Hang on a minute." Flexing her knees, she sprang into the tree canopy with barely a rustle, Blueblood's stomach clenching. What did she think she was—?

Almost instantly, she dropped back into her previous hoofprints. "Nope. I told him to head due west, and he's already veered off to the north."

"He had a destination in mind." Blueblood started along between the wheel ruts again. "Any idea where he might be heading?"

Beside him, Dash rolled her eyes in thought, the tip of her tongue playing at the corner of her mouth, and Blueblood found that not only couldn't he hide his grin, he didn't much want to. She caught his reaction immediately, he could tell, and her full prickliness snapped back into place. "Something funny?" she asked.

He shook his head. "Merely the absurdity of asking a pegasus to figure directions while she's on the ground."

That seemed to mollify her a bit, her shoulders relaxing. "Yeah, well, once I get my bearings, I'm usually pretty good whether I'm on top or down below."

And the places his mind took that statement. "Indeed?" he asked, unable to keep an eyebrow from arching.

She blinked, and her blush turned her face a lovely violet color. "I...I didn't mean that! I just meant—!" She took a breath and gestured toward the darkened trees ahead. "I'd say he was heading for the castle."

"Castle?" Bits of old stories started tickling his brain and mixing with something Princess Luna had said yesterday, something about—

"It's just a ruin now," Dash was saying. "But I guess the princesses used to live there before the first Nightmare Moon thing a thousand years ago. It's where we beat her the second time and turned her back into Princess Luna, and it's pretty much the only building out here except for Zecora's place." Her lips tightened. "And if Green Briar's trying to find this unicorn magic from before the princesses—"

"Yes." A chill rustling his mane, Blueblood picked up the pace.

"Ummm..." Dash fell in beside him. "Shouldn't we maybe—I dunno—go back and get some of your super spy stuff or something?" And the way her gaze traveled up and down the length of his body took his thoughts in certain directions again. "Or you got it all hidden under your cloak?"

He didn't, of course—he'd just gotten off the train, after all, and hadn't been expecting to already be on Green Briar's trail. Still, he knew Chives would've packed as much of his equipment as would fit, and Blueblood smiled, thinking of his valet conscientiously laying out his collapsible crossbow and miniature camera alongside his dinner jacket. It might be quite convenient, he thought, having Chives along on these missions.

Dash was still looking at him, so he widened his smile a bit. "It's just reconnaissance at this point," he told her. "After all, we can't do anything till we find him, can we?"

Part of him bristled again at the word 'we'—he was Prince Blueblood, Agent Double-O-Zeta, undoubtedly the finest individual operative the Clandestine Corps had ever seen! But Canterlot seemed very far away at the moment, even farther away than it did on most of these missions, and having somepony with him who he knew could take care of herself let him overrule that bristling part once more.

She gave a shrug and a nod, and they pushed steadily onward. The path of Green Briar's cart wound through the trees, Dash assuring him it was keeping a generally northward course, and after a half an hour or so of slipping through the shadowy stillness, a breeze brushed the tip of his nose.

"Whoa," Dash said at the same moment. "Must be a clearing ahead."

"The castle?"

That big grin spread across her snout. "Let's find out."

Arching her back and spreading her wings, Dash began creeping forward, and after dousing the light from his horn, Blueblood followed. They were definitely coming up on an open space, the air moving sluggishly, damp with the scent of age and disrepair. Dash stopped, pressed herself against the trunk of some big gnarled tree with scaly bark, and peered around it into the gloom beyond; Blueblood slid in close to look past her.

Stone walls loomed, and even the trees seemed taller here, their canopies stretching over the castle's tower and blocking out most of the sunlight. In the near-darkness, a glow wavered from the lowest window of that tower, a flickering spot perhaps thirty feet above the ground. The smell of stagnant water drew Blueblood's attention as well, and he saw a jagged ravine cutting the forest floor on the castle's far side. A rope bridge sagged over the chasm, and he realized they must have approached the castle from the rear.

A hoof tapped his chest, and he looked down to see Dash looking back. She jiggled her wings, nodded to the glowing window, and cocked her head. Sending her alone was out of the question, of course, so giving the ruins a quick glance, he pointed to a path up a collapsed wall and along a ledge that would allow him to reach the window as well without relying on his levitation spell. It was odd that he didn't feel the tell-tale tingle of Green Briar's usual anti-magic shield at the base of his horn, but once again, taking chances here was simply out of the question.

Dash nodded, stepped into the clearing, and drifted as quiet as a cloud toward the base of the wall directly below the window. Blueblood crossed what must once have been a courtyard, the stones' thick layer of moss muffling his hoofsteps, and quickly clambered up to the ledge. He glanced over to see Dash rising silently at about the same rate, and she reached the right side of the window just as Blueblood inched his way over from the left. She gave another nod; he returned it, steeled himself for whatever might lay beyond, and stretched his neck to—

"Ah, good," an all-too-familiar voice said from within, and Blueblood felt the stones move. Whirling, he tried to shove Dash out of the way, but the whole wall was flexing and writhing, closing over them like a clam shell snapping shut. He spun again in the total darkness to lash out with his hind legs, but the surface beneath his front hoofs gave way and plunged him forward, a cry and a warm solid pressure against his back telling him that Dash had been caught in the trap as well. Trying to activate his horn only produced a dull buzzing, but then the blackness whisked away to reveal a stone floor rushing up. Doing his best to turn in the air, he still struck shoulder-first, his coat and cloak cushioning the blow, and managed to bounce back onto his hoofs, something binding him tight around his midsection.

"And here I was afraid we might have to start without you," that voice continued. Blinking, Blueblood saw the back of a cloaked figure in the center of the dimly lit room he'd just fallen into, seven stone slabs stretched in a semi-circle behind him. The figure turned, and even though the bandages masked him completely, the voice and the storm cloud above his golden horn told Blueblood everything he needed to know.

Putting on his most disdainful expression, Blueblood took a step forward. "So very typical, Green Briar," he said. "I mean, seriously. Don't you ever get tired of living the cliché?"

Green Briar's horn flared, but instead of the tantrum Blueblood was expecting, the room just got brighter. "Cliché, you say?" His chuckle was high-pitched and not the sort of thing Blueblood had ever heard from him before. "How's this, then?"

The shadows across the stone slabs lessened, and Blueblood blinked to see ponies lying on their backs: two unicorns, two pegasi, two earth ponies, and a zebra. Rings of fire circled their fetlocks, and Blueblood couldn't help but think of the spell that had bound him in Green Briar's tower two nights ago. Getting an eye roll and a cutting remark ready, Blueblood had to stop when the earth pony on the end groaned.

It was Chives.

"No!" Dash shouted behind him, his back suddenly alive with squirming. "Fluttershy! Rarity! Are you guys OK?!"

***

It was like the stones themselves had flowed around her, pushing her belly-first against Blueblood's cloak, then lashing her there on top of him like a foal riding her poppa's back. At least the rocky ring had clamped itself around her hindquarters below her wings, but even flapping as hard as she could wouldn't let her slip out of it. And no way could she lift a big lump of a stallion like Blueblood!

Frantic, she craned her neck to see past his head, and the sight of Roseluck, Fluttershy, Rarity, Zecora, Lyra, Gusty, and some earth pony she didn't know streched over the stone slabs set her to struggling again. "What're you doing, Green Briar?! Let 'em go! You hear me?!"

"Well, well!" The cloaked and bandaged unicorn gave another weird giggle, a broken-glass edge to it that made Dash's ears fold. "Rainbow Dash, isn't it? I should've known, Double-O-Zeta. You'd never have found me this quickly without help."

Blueblood's ears flicked, and Dash could just make out a whiff of uncertainty in his scent. "That's a new look for you, isn't it, Briary?" His accent dripped with scorn. "A bit worse for our last run-in, I'm guessing."

"On the contrary!" Green Briar's little cloud flashed and rumbled, and Dash's stomach clenched. A unicorn should not be able to control weather that well. "Passing through the fire of our last meeting, Double-O-Zeta, opened my mind in so many fascinating ways that I'm delighted I shall have this opportunity to thank you before I kill you." He swept a hoof through the air. "For now that I've seen the truth, have deciphered the mystery of the Octopony, and have set it in motion with the help of my new friends here, I will finally have my vindication!"

Dash blinked at him. "Octopony?"

With a snort, Blueblood tossed his mane. "Check your notes, Briary. I only count seven."

"And not to call your theory phony," came Zecora's slurred voice from behind Green Briar, "but I fear I'm not a pony."

"Silence!" Green Briar spun, lightning slashing from his cloud to wrap around the zebra, her body going stiff. "You have no idea what you're talking about! None of you ever have!" He snapped his head back around, and Dash was sure she could make out a sickly yellow glow where the bandages covered his eyes. "This is the ceremony those foul monstrosities used to steal our power all those millennia ago! Two members of each pony tribe, a non-pony to ground the system, and one to cast the spell and reap its benefits!" He reared back and spread his front legs, his cloak flapping behind him even though Dash couldn't feel any wind. "On this very spot, they robbed us of our heritage! And on this very spot, I shall reclaim it for all unicorns everywhere!"

That the guy was a dangerous nut was beyond question, but seeing her friends lying there blankly blinking at the ceiling, Dash couldn't help shouting out, "A trade then, OK?! Me and his Whoness here for Fluttershy and Rarity!"

A breath gasped beneath her, but fortunately Blueblood didn't say anything so Dash didn't have to start kicking him.

Green Briar, though, just shook his head. "You're to be commended for your generosity, Ms. Dash, but I fear you've yoked your wagon to poor unfortunate Prince Blueblood." The ring across her back seemed to tighten, her inner ear telling her she was rising; looking down, she saw Blueblood's hoofs leave the floor. "And that means you have but the one option available to you."

Blueblood snorted. "You always were a terrible planner, Briary, using a binding spell you yourself can't break."

They began drifting toward the partially-fallen arch that Dash knew from her last time here lead out into the castle's main courtyard. "Ah, yes," Green Briar said behind them. "That's how I want to remember you, Double-O-Zeta: bloviating and exasperating till the last." His voice echoed along the walls as they wafted like dandelion fluff out into the deep-green shadows of the forest morning, Dash beating her wings to try controlling their course but getting nowhere. "Once I've killed your precious princesses and set all ponies free, I assure you, I shall think fondly of the buffoonish oaf who spent so much of his time in a vain effort to stop me!"

Straining, Dash gave a snort of her own. "We can't let that guy do...whatever it is he's trying to do!"

"Oh, we shan't," Blueblood rumbled, the words coming tight and strangled to Dash's ears. "I take it, however, that you know several of the ponies in there?"

"Two of my best friends in the world!" Flapping harder didn't even slow them down, and they floated out the castle gate toward the rope bridge, the spot she remembered so well from the last time she'd come out to these ruins and had faced down Nightmare Moon's Shadowbolts. "And the rest of them, too, except the guy on the end!"

"Yes, well." The tremble in Blueblood's voice made Dash stop, more emotion there suddenly than she'd heard all day. "The one you didn't recognize was my personal valet, Chives." A shaky breath rattled in and out of him. "And the only reason he's lying in there now is because I in my arrogance and stupidity brought him straight into the teeth of mortal danger." His head came up, a fire in his eyes. "So we will find a way out of our predicament, Rainbow Dash. We will storm Green Briar's lair, we will rescue our friends, stop the villain, and save the princesses!"

And as much as Dash wanted to start cheering, she couldn't quite manage it. "Any idea how?" she asked.

"By being clever." Muscles tightened in his jaw, the edge of the ravine coming closer and closer. "For while something's definitely happened to Green Briar since I last tangled with him two days ago, something that's given him more power and confidence and unhinged him even further, this magic dampening field of his weakens with distance. The spell's gotten better since I first felt it, but it hasn't changed that much. So once we're away from its influence, I can undo this belt we've got around us and we can—"

The air made a fizzling noise as they sailed out over the open chasm. Whatever was lifting them cut off abruptly, and gravity's gentle but insistent pull was something Dash knew way too well. "Hang on!" she yelled, stretching her wings again.

"To what?!" he shouted, but Dash tuned him out to focus on their fall, the rim of the cliff passing, the wind picking up, the sluggish stream at the bottom rushing toward them. Because air and earth, sky and ground, the eternal dance between them, this was stuff she'd known since before she could talk. And even with the band of stones tying Blueblood's useless weight to her belly, well, if there was one thing Rainbow Dash could do, it was crash with style.

Not forcing it or pushing it or shredding her muscles trying to stop something that was going to happen anyway, she made suggestions instead, gave their fall a little direction, evened them out, and slowed the drop enough so that Blueblood could maybe—

"Got it," he said. Knees bending and body shifting, he slid around into pretty much the position Dash would've taken if she'd been landing this way by herself. She tightened her grip on the smooth weave of his cloak, then the mud was rising the last few feet to meet them. Blueblood made a sound halfway between a grunt and a cough and skidded into the slime right legs first, his left legs folding. They kind of cushioned the impact though Dash's teeth still snapped together so hard, her eyeballs jiggled. The canyon floor was wet enough so that they kicked up a good-sized wave but mooshy enough to absorb the force of the crash, and they slid to a halt without—she hoped, she hoped, she hoped—snapping Blueblood's legs or ribs or anything else for that matter.

It took a few seconds of panting and listening to him pant, the air stinking of rotting plants, for Dash to get out, "You OK?"

"In a way," he said, and the anger in his voice made her ears fold. His horn began to glow, and he gave a crisp nod. "There. We're out from under his dampening spell. I should be able to—"

"No!" A thought hit her hard, and as much as she wanted to get out of that hole, race back to the castle, and start kicking things over, she figured she really needed to be alive to do that. Stretching quickly, she wrapped her front hoofs around his horn. "No magic!"

"Gah!" He writhed like a storm cloud under her. "What do you think you're doing?! You can't grab a unicorn's horn while he's—!"

"That dampening spell thing!" Dash tightened her grip. "Why didn't it stop Green Briar's magic?!"

"Because he exempted himself, of course!" Blueblood leaped to his hoofs, mud dripping from his cloak. "He fashioned the spell to work on everypony other than him!"

Dash's stomach fell. "You...you can do that? Because, I mean, if I spin up a wind, it'll blow me around as much as everything else. I...I guess I figured that unicorn magic would work in, like, the same way..."

Blueblood snorted. "Well, obviously you know nothing about—!" He stopped, his ears jerking straight up, and he slowly swiveled his head around to face her, his eyes wide. "A blanket spell like a dampening field. To make it work on everypony except you, the variables involved would be vast, practically incalculable! And any exemption spell you cast on yourself would dissipate once the general magic dampening went into effect! There's no way Green Briar could've...could've—!" He went very still under her then, his gaze far away and unfocused. "Unless..."

After a few seconds, Dash cleared her throat. "Unless what?"

"The magic dampening spell." Blueblood sounded as smooth and calm as ever, but Dash knew the calm before the storm when she smelled it. "He tailored it specifically for me."

Taking a breath, Dash blew it out. "That's what I was thinking, yeah. I mean, you said you're always the one who stops him, right? Soon as he figured that out, seems to me that he'd start making plans for when you showed up." She pulled her hoofs away from his horn. "We need Twilight. Her magic'll work, and—"

"But how?!" Blueblood stomped a hoof with a splash. "He would've needed articles of my clothing! Clippings from my mane, from my tail, from my hoofs! He would've needed—!" And when he stopped this time, Dash felt a shudder run through his whole body. "He would've needed Chives," he finished in a whisper.

***

Mud clung cold and foul to every part of Blueblood, but it was nothing compared to the wretched, frozen horror crackling inside his chest. "Chives?" he heard Dash ask from his back. "You mean your friend who's in there?"

"Friend?" Blueblood's mind flailed. Never! the louder parts of him wanted to shout. Merely a valued employee and a trusted servant!

But the quiet part of him, the part he hadn't even know he had in him till Princess Luna's combination of logic and threats had slapped it awake during their meeting yesterday, the part that had stopped him from sleeping the whole way out here from Canterlot and had been forcing him all day to face the truth whether pleasant or unpleasant, that part gave a little sigh. Then you're saying you have no friends at all? it asked.

"No." He scrambled for some other explanation, for any word except 'betrayal,' but the timeline was absolutely clear now that he thought about it. Two days after his second run-in with Green Briar, his previous valet White Glove had come into a sudden and sizable inheritance; the ungrateful wretch tendering his resignation on the spot had forced Blueblood to visit the employment agency his family had used for countless generations. There, he'd met Chives entering the building at the same time, the earth pony impeccable in his black coat and white shirt as he'd held the door for Blueblood, and the easy but restrained conversation they'd fallen into, it had all been...had all been...

"A set-up," he heard himself say. "From the beginning. Chives has been working for Green Briar all along."

"What?" Dash squirmed again, trying once more, he figured, to work herself free from Green Briar's stone ring. "Then why's he tied up in there with the others?"

"Because they think I'm a fool!" Unable to hold back any longer, Blueblood let his anger and his outrage burst forth. "Seeing Chives in danger was supposed to get my temper flaring, was supposed to get me acting even wilder and more rash as I always do! Green Briar would dump me into this ravine, just out of range of the dampening spell, and I would come charging out in a white and magical fury to—" He gasped as the thoughts ricocheting through his head started sticking together into a coherent outline. Craning his neck around, he demanded of the pegasus strapped to his back, "Your friends! Did you see them yesterday?!"

Dash blinked at him. "Well, yeah, in the morning. It was their spa day, so they would've been there all afternoon, then they usually grab some dinner when they're done since it gets dark so early this time of year."

Blueblood looked up at the top of the chasm. "If they've been in Green Briar's clutches since last night, why hasn't he done this Octopony spell yet?"

She made a little sighing sound. "You're saying he was waiting for you and Chives to get here," she murmured.

"He needs me to trigger it all." Blueblood didn't understand the details, but with everything he knew about Green Briar, it had to be true. "I was supposed to let loose with my magic and set off whatever trap he's prepared here, a trap that would no doubt kill me and provide the initial impetus for his spell. And I would have done just that if..." He swallowed and turned back to Dash. "If you hadn't stopped me."

Shrugging, she shook her head. "So. No magic, I can't lift you, and we're still tied together. Any suggestions?"

With Chives's apparent treachery as sharp as knives in his gut, lying down in the muck here and never getting up again was his first thought. But instead, Blueblood began wading through the fetlock-deep mud for the far wall of the canyon. "Climbing, I'd say. You keep your wings flapping to help me stick to the wall, and I do my best not to slip."

He heard Dash blow out a breath, the cool pressure of it brushing the back of his neck. "OK. Then what?"

"Then back to Ponyville." Admitting that he'd failed clawed at the inside of his throat, but ponies' lives were at stake. "Green Briar's done quite the effective job of rendering me useless, so it's as you said: we need Ms. Sparkle." Reaching the cliff face, he touched a hoof to it and looked back at Rainbow Dash, her face serious, her wings cocked and ready. "As soon as we've left the range of any possible spell Green Briar might've set up to explode in the presence of my magic, I break this binding and you fly for town. Gather Ms. Sparkle and Spike, and I'll be waiting for you at the spot where we entered the forest earlier this morning with a plan." Please, Auntie Celestia, let me have a plan by then.

"Right," she said, and when her wings started flapping, he could feel the lift they gave him. "Let's go!"

***

In his spot at the apex of the seven stone slabs, every quaver of his magic in place as it had been since last night, Green Briar waited for the explosion, waited for the power to come flooding over him, waited for the knowledge that Double-O-Zeta had reduced himself to ash while enabling the very restoration he had so often prevented—

And it just kept not happening!

"Gahhh!" He stomped a hoof, galloped for the window, and peered out through the forest's gloom at the ravine. He'd planned this all so perfectly, and he knew Blueblood better than the fool knew himself! What could possibly have gone wrong?!

That pegasus, Rainbow Dash. She was the only variable he hadn't accounted for! But how could he have foreseen her? Double-O-Zeta always worked alone! He had to! No pony could stand being in his Highness's presence for longer than a few minutes! Green Briar's bank account certainly showed that, the way he'd so often had to increase the amount he paid Chives just to keep the pony working as the prince's valet!

Maybe Blueblood had broken his neck during the fall into the chasm? A pretty thought, but not one Green Briar could count on. He should go out and check, peek over the edge and—

Something moved along the far side of the canyon. Green Briar squinted, his teeth grinding, and felt every inch of his burned flesh tighten when the figure of a large muddy pony pulled itself over the rim, blue wings blurring the air behind it. The figure flopped forward onto the ground for a moment, then sprang up and ran into the cover of the trees.

Red spots popping at the corners of his vision, Green Briar turned and stomped across the room to the farthest of the seven slabs. "Chives!" he shouted, blasting away the pall of magically induced sleep from the earth pony lying there. "It didn't work!"

Chives shifted, inhaled, and blinked, confusion as thick as maple syrup over his face. "But...how could it not?"

"Doesn't matter!" Green Briar cast his magic back to pull the dagger from its hiding place in his cart, the blade flashing golden with the light from his horn. "Time for plan B!"